Some people think my friend and her friends are terrorists… or they used to anyway….Time has a way of softening people’s judgement. I met Joy when I was 15 years old.   She had florescent blond hair, a hippy vibe, a really fast car she wasn’t afraid to push and loved music at an even higher decibel than me. None of those things have changed other than the florescent hair.

Even then her name perfectly matched her spirit. That’s the most consistent thing about her.

25 years later our connection is like a steel rod from one heart to the other. We mostly laugh to the point of achy tears and we require very little to be spoken to really understand, two essential requirements for deep friendship in my book. We NEVER try to fix each other’s problems, the third and most essential element.

I called her recently and heard an increased “Joy” within her. She had just completed Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. It ended Friday July 17th.  Many years ago I had tried to participate with her and the rest of the Islamic world because I admire spiritual devotion of all kinds and I wanted to expand my understanding. I set out to learn as much as I could and attempted to set aside my judgments. I tried reading the Quran. I didn’t eat from sunrise to sunset and attempted to turn my focus inward every time I was stimulated by hunger or thoughts of the outer world.   I even participated in one of her community’s gatherings called “Jummah.”   I was nervous going in, I don’t know a thing about any of these traditions and my attempt at reading the Quran failed within two paragraphs.

As I looked around I noticed they didn’t all look like Osama and they weren’t filled with hate towards me as our culture had encouraged me to expect. As they entered some cleansed themselves with water before Salat (prayer).   Before Salat it’s common to wash your face, ears, forearms, feet, hands, nose and mouth.   Not much different than us Buddhists taking off our shoes and bowing three times. The men sat in the front and the women in back, the women wore Hijab which is essentially a head covering of some sort.

Joy wore a beautiful purple scarf and I had tears in my eyes as I watched her sincerity deepen.

I decided to sit against the wall in order to be there but not be there.

I listened as the Sheikh (preacher dude) lead the prayer and seemed to do a call and response chant of some kind. Everyone stood up and sat down often. I wanted to think they were crazy, I had flashes of all the news coverage after 9/11.   I wondered for a moment if my phone would now be tapped since I attended. I heard the same words CNN had played a thousand times, “allahu akbar”. Come to find out it means “God is the greatest”

I didn’t understand what they were saying but the love and commitment to a holy life penetrated me instantly. I wondered why we always hear of such hate when I was witnessing such love.

It’s been a long time since that first Jummah I attended. Over the years I’ve become what Joy calls “a friend of the community”… meaning, I love them and honor their customs and beliefs and cherish the people and hang out with them a few times a year in some kind of spiritual gathering in as much non-judgment as I can muster but I don’t commit to the specific teachings they follow.

I asked Joy what a Sufi really is, Sufi being the brand of Muslim she is, similar to how you can be a Lutheran or a Methodist Christian or a Theravada or Zen Buddhist. She responded: “I guess a Sufi is a Muslim seeking a direct experience of God. Like the Essenes in Christianity.”

In the 20+ years now I’ve been hanging out with Joy’s community and spiritual family, I have been witness to real amazing grace. I watch the news and listen to the judgments and see all the stuff about the terrorists and it’s all in total contrast to what I’ve directly witnessed as a friend of this community.   They serve the people 24/7 with community gardens and orphanages and community fundraisers for local causes. They have a huge farm and feed as many people as they can find. They live in a balanced level of voluntary simplicity and community abundance that has none of the extremism we hear about.   I’ve watched closely how they handle money, treat eachother, run businesses and raise children.   After all these years I still don’t understand the words they study or the practices they commit to—but I resonate at the deepest level with the big love and holy radiance I feel from them.

I asked Joy to describe what Ramadan means and her answer perfectly demonstrates why I love her so much and why our non-evidence based judgments are so ridiculous:

Ramadan, in Arabic, means “the great heat.” All of the spiritual practices- fasting, reading and delving into scripture, increasing and intensifying our prayers, serving one another and being together in community every night……each of these things crashes headlong into all of my attachments, my hold outs, my opinions and my sense of “me.” I’m drawn to face myself again and again, brought up short by my self-absorption, my opinions, my preferences. I get to clearly see, moment by moment, how damn stuck I am on the smallest things. How much I’m run by wanting what I want, when I want it. The month of Ramadan is a combination of a mirror, a dentist’s drill and a frying pan. The only choice that is left is to let go, over and over, and just BE in it.

And as I let go, I get to be a part of the harmony and beauty of truly being united with others. Striving to serve first, to give away what isn’t really mine anyway, to being open to see how guidance is only a guide when I allow myself to embrace it, dig into it and actually live it. Ramadan hits me right where “I” live and gives me marching orders to a whole new address. Get up, get to work, get over yourself and get real. And as I let go of all the crap that I was completely convinced was me, finally, finally, I can feel and know that what I’ve always really wanted is to BE love. To give love. To give in to loving wildly, openly and endlessly.

I know that for about a minute. Then I forget. Back into the frying pan for another round of hot-ass fire, drill baby drill. The month of Ramadan burns me over and over, scorching me out. And as long as I stay in it, stay with it, I get hollowed out. That’s how it works………the less there is of little me, the more room there is for big love.